Siem Reap, Cambodia
It’s been ten years since I’ve been to Siem Reap, the last time being by way of Phnom Penh and a long and bumpy road. This time I flew a 45 minute Bangkok Airways flight directly into Siem Reap’s new international airport and was fed perhaps the tastiest airplane food I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot. The flight was painless and the most time was spent at BKK jumping through the ticket counter hoops, airport tax hoops (standard baht 500), passport control, etc, which took all of about 90 minutes.
45 more minutes and you’re in Cambodia jumping through the same hoops in reverse. This is a busy little international airport and the visa officials were collecting $20 U.S. bills at a steady pace. The visa process, picture, visa sticker in the passport, signature, etc, took only 10-15 minutes including the line, but then you must run the gauntlet through immigration where serious men and women in uniform study the visa their colleagues just issued you, take your picture with a Logitech webcam, then carefully stamp your visa in no less than five separate places before signing it and herding you on to the baggage turnstiles. I should note than in a few months when Cambodia officially joins the ASEAN club that the $20 visas won’t be required for stays of under 60 days and I’ve got to wonder where they’ll hit you up to make up for the lost revenue. I’m guessing they’ll raise the ridiculous departure airport tax from the steep $25 U.S. to maybe $50.. and you guys thought Thailand’s baht 500 was high..
My driver was waiting for me as I exited the airport holding a sign with my name which was actually spelled correctly! I had decided to hire a car / driver vs. the bicycle or tuktuk route because I was there to seriously photograph Angkor Wat and I had lots of camera gear I needed to cart around and only four working days to see most of the site and make a plan for my subsequent return trips where I’ll be staying for 5-6 ten day periods or until the job is done. I found Mr. Phansy on the web and he carries a Canby Publication recommendation and at his advertised $20 a day for car / gas / driver I figured he was worth trying. Mr. Ros Phansy was not only 100% reliable throughout, but he also has a decent car, speaks adequate English, is a knowledgeable tour guide, and he lugged my heavy camera bags and tripod for me the entire time without complaint. We started work at 0400 when he picked me up, finished for the morning before 1100 when I went back to the hotel to rest, and then he picked me up at 1530 and we worked until an hour after sunset or about 1930. At the end of the trip he expected only $20 a day but he was invaluable to my work and I want to use him on my return visits so I paid him substantially more. His mobile phone is 855 12 843 992 and his email is: [email protected] I don’t usually plug anybody, but if you want an honest and reliable hard working individual who has tons of knowledge of the area then this is the guy.
Why not a tuktuk? Because they’re not the same as in Thailand.. tuktuks in Cambodia are merely a four seat tuktuk styled trailer that gets towed behind a motorsai and appear to be by far the most popular form of transportation among tourists. During the dark hours I noticed that only about one in ten of these tuktuks had working tail lights and was actually worried we’d run up the back of one filled with tourists. I asked Mr. Phansey about this and he went into some interesting tales about tuktuks in Cambodia. The most popular theme is when the yoke breaks off from the duct taped on seat mount and the tourists go flying onto the cement. Supposedly it happened rather badly the day before I arrived and two men ended up with severe head injuries. Wheels also fly off he claims (I believe this, ride behind one and watch them wobble around) causing less serious injuries. That leaves hired cars and bicycles and many tourists enjoyed biking. Or.. you could jump on the motorsai pulled bus for the locals which is nothing more than a long tuktuk trailer that holds about 25 locals all pulled by a small motorsai. Oh, if you ever wondered what happens to all the old cars from Thailand wonder no more. Even though they drive on the other side of the rode (than Thailand) Thai cars are by far the most popular automobile purchases.
There’s no need to change money if you have U.S. dollars because this is all they take. The hotels will change your baht into dollars but no other foreign currency is accepted. Not having but a few U.S. dollars since I live in Bangkok I went to cash in some baht but didn’t care for the exchange rate which was baht 6 below the current official rate. So.. I walked out of my hotel and asked the nearest tuktuk driver (taxis are hard to find) to take me to an ATM machine but guess what? Yep, no ATM machines that dispense dollars. So, off to the Western Union storefront where it cost me $8 to draw $400 from my visa. You can always purchase Cambodian money but at 3800 or so to the dollar you’ll need a suitcase to carry it around and then no one in town really wants to take it. I purchased $20 worth anyway thinking I might find myself someplace where they won’t take American dollars (funny eh?..;o) and boy did I get a bankroll. No problem though, I put it in my front pocket and enjoyed the stares from the local females…;o)
That leaves the hotels and the changes the town has went through since my last visit. There are more hotels in this small town than ever. Most are very nice, very big, and very expensive. I stayed at the Angkor Hotel for $45 a night which is a very nice hotel with its own gift shop, restaurant, spa, pool, etc, and the room was clean and well kept and the staff great. The internet price for the same room was $100, the Expedia price more. I called the hotel manager from Bangkok personally and received the lower rate. I’d guess this is a mid priced hotel with places on either end, though you won’t be finding any really low price places. I should also mention that prices in Siem Reap are more expensive than Bangkok for most everything. Coke at the supermarket was 50 cents, 90 minute Khmer massages (same as Thai for the most part) were $20 in your room, and meals from room service were from $5 to $20 depending on what you eat. Keep in mind that a “club sandwich” was a 6” French roll with cucumbers and two strips of bacon (that’s it) for $5, and you might find yourself needing 2-3 of them to stave off starvation. Fortunately I found an acceptable alternative.
More than half the tourists in Siem Reap are Koreans. As such there are many Korean restaurants and hotels and all that I visited served great Korean food though they did take exception when I queried if the bulgogi was actually kaigogi.. (dog vs. beef) They claimed it’s beef but the beef in these restaurants and in my hotel has a very “rangy” flavour that even Thai beef doesn’t have. Kinda stringy as well. Still, it was food and you can draw your own conclusions. Oh, there wasn’t a stray dog on the streets anywhere though there were a few in the temple complex.
Speaking of Koreans – I noticed my guide's face going dark as these huge Korean tour groups entered these scared sites and started yelling back and forth to each other, slapping each other on the back, climbing on whatever they wanted for pictures, and just generally being very rude and crude. Having lived in Korea for some years I’m used to seeing this behavior, but it’s not any more acceptable in the temples of Cambodia than it is in the temples of Thailand. After a few days I finally got it out of him that the locals grit their teeth with the Korean tourists and overall have very little respect for them. I can’t blame the locals for feeling this way.
I’ve heard stories that Cambodians don’t care for Thais, so I asked my driver / guide about this and he said that stuff is long past. They now actually enjoy the Thai tourists more than most and go out of their way to make them comfortable. After this trip I won’t hesitate to take my wife with me on my next shoot.
Shopping in Cambodia – You’ll be accosted in a huge way at all the temples by very young children who all have the same business plan, while the older children and adults hang back in the booths that sell the same stuff trying to be less obvious (not succeeding). The plan goes like this, they’ll look at you with the cute hungry kid look (which may be true) and offer to sell you some small trinkets for “only a dollar” and they won’t let up and will be very persistent no matter what you say. When they finally give up they tell you “when you come back you’ll buy for a dollar then ok?” And when you come back there they are reminding you of your promise even if your lips never moved. Some of these items are decent value and could be desirable as small gifts and the such. The booths contain all sorts of local crafts, paintings, fabrics, and trinkets. The “old market” area has tons of these shops and frankly they’re not that much different than what you’ll find in Bangkok in the open air markets. There are some nice art, photo, and craft galleries / stores with nicer items if you’re after home deco items.
Places to see besides the temples – There are several museums with the land mine museum being the most captivating in my opinion. There’s a children’s hospital with a daily concert at 1930 put on by the patients and this is well attended most likely because it’s the only free show in town with donations optional. When I was there they were having a blood shortage but I’m not sure if they always advertise this “shortage” to collect the blood of visiting tourists. Either way, I stopped in and gave a pint making sure the needle was new and it was relatively painless.
AIDS / HIV in Cambodia – Being fairly isolated AIDS / HIV was very rare in Cambodia up until the time the U.N. sent workers there on several relief projects. We now know that many of these workers were taken from African postings where we’ve probably all read in the papers how they were exploiting starving women for sex. The U.N. moved them from that post to Cambodia without HIV / AIDS screenings and this has now proven to have been a huge mistake as the workers did the same things in Cambodia with women that they did with the women in Africa thereby for all practical purposes introducing AIDS to Cambodia. I’m sure the occasional sex tourist probably got there first, but no where near the scale.
Sex in Cambodia – I was very glad to see big banner signs across several main streets informing tourists (in English) that if you have sex with a minor you “will serve time in our prison or yours.” A confusing sentence? Maybe. It seems that the EU didn’t think the Cambodian prisons are good enough for European child molesters and using aid and other charitable resources as leverage made Cambodia agree to allow convicted sex offenders serve out their time in EU prisons vs. Cambodian prisons. Personally I feel the threat of spending time in a foreign prison adds to the deterrence factor so this option of serving your time in your home countries prison only serves to dilute the effectiveness of the law. With all that said Cambodia, at least in Siem Reap, is not a sex tourist hot spot. I’ve been told by several locals where to go if you wish to indulge but the chances are high you’ll be paying someone who’s holding unwilling Vietnamese women for these services. I’m not going to go into detail on this, but it was explained to me how easy it is to circumvent all these laws, who has to be paid, where the girls / boys come from, and all the germane details of “purchasing” your desires. I must say it’s quite cheap and very easy if this is your goal, much cheaper than you could ever imagine.
I’m not happy to add that the parents are willing participants and often see this as their “payback” for raising female children who they often don’t consider good for much else. I say this only because we need to be aware that there is still much work to be done to keep these street banners and the laws they advertise from being completely hollow.
About the temple – This is why we come. I think for this area I’ll just let my pictures speak for themselves. This is a wonderful place full of history and spirituality and a few words from me just wouldn’t do it justice. Hopefully by the end of the year you’ll be able to buy my book though… I selected about ten or so pictures and I’m not sure how much bandwidth Stick has for them.. these are reduced size and quality shots because frankly people tend to steal better quality images of mine and I see them on websites often enough that I’ve learned my lessons. Copyright is a very important concept for someone who earns their living doing this stuff. I hope you enjoy the show.
Nice story, GREAT photography!